Does your pup lose his or her mind when you pick up the leash? Put on your shoes? Say “Ready to go for a drive?” Or, for that matter, when a good friend comes up the walk? Welcome to excitement barking.
Roughly 95% of dog language is a visual language, spoken through the tip of an ear or the slant of an eye. But when your dog really needs someone to know something NOW, or just can’t stand how fabulous life is (or is about to be), they start barking.
The thing with excitement barking is that we need to bring the excitement levels down.
“But why?” I hear you cry. (I hear others of you cry, “Yes PLEASE.”) Well, because aside from being a nuisance, it can actually increase your dog’s anxiety (and that of the dogs around it). In addition, excitement barking isn’t a natural state in dogs, and other dogs get disturbed by the craziness of the excited dog. If they don’t join in (and sometimes even if they do join in), they can become aggressive toward the overly excited dog.
“Whaaaaat?” I hear you cry. “That makes no sense. Why would excitement create anxiety?”
People do this thing where we go, “I’m content. I’m happy! I’m excited! I’m so excited! THIS IS THE BEST DAY EVER! WHEEEEEE!!!” But dogs do this: “I’m content. I’m happy! I’m excited! I’m so excited! THIS IS THE BEST DAY EVER! OH MY GOD I FEEL WEIRD WE’RE ALL GOING TO DIIIIIIIIIIIIIIE!!!!”
And then comes the anxiety. Make sense? No? You can go back and look at the body language posts. Find the ones for stress and anxiety, and you’ll see the same look on dogs that are “overly excited.” Don’t trust me; trust what your dog is telling you.
So the big trick with excitement barking is to bring down the levels of excitement. There are a hundred and one ways to do this! We’re going to look at a few over the next couple of weeks, with going for a walk as the excitement trigger.
Note: I’m assuming you’re using a collar. If you’re using a harness or a collar you put on just for walking, it’s the same thing, but you start with the harness/collar instead of leash.
- The positive reinforcement method.
This relies on teaching your dog something that they can focus on instead of getting over excited. I do this with most of my walking dogs in a minor way: we all sit to put our leashes on, because it gives them a way to learn to contain and control themselves. Likewise, you could teach your dog to go lay in his or her bed when a friend comes over, or lay down before getting in the car.
Cash verbally explodes whenever he knows we’re going for a walk. So, before I mention a walk, I grab several treats and call him over to where I keep the leashes. Before I touch a leash, I ask him to sit, and give him a treat. Now I have his focus. If he also tends to physically explode (dancing, jumping, twisting, etc) I might, at this point, gently grab his collar to keep some control. Now I’m going to reach for my leash.
EXPLOSION OCCURS. My dog is going to try and meet my energy levels, so I’m going to stay as calm and quiet as possible. The more frustrated or in a rush I get, the worse my dog gets. I keep hold of my dog’s collar, hang the leash over my shoulder so I have one hand free, get a treat out of my pocket, and try to catch my dog’s eye. Now I wait for my dog to calm down. I’m going to say, “Sit,” quietly. When they finally calm enough to succeed, I’m going to give them the treat. Now I’m going to clip the leash on their collar.
EXPLOSION OCCURS AGAIN. If I didn’t get the leash on, I’m going to stop, stay calm, and go back to the above step. I’m probably going to straighten up as much as I can (with my hand still on the collar) to distance myself from my dog. And wait.
But if I DID get the leash on, then I’m going to straighten up and distance myself, stay calm, and take a breath. I’m also going to lift up gently on the leash. My goal is to feel my dog’s weight. If my dog isn’t leaping but is twirling and barking, then his or her front feet won’t come off the ground. All I’m trying to do is lift their head slightly, to rock the weight back on their haunches and get them to sit again. If my dog is leaping, then I might have to lift a little higher. I DO NOT want my dog’s weight hanging off their neck, so if I have to lift higher, I’m going to lift up so they can balance on their back feet and take their own weight. When they’re done dancing you’ll feel it; as they sink, go with them.
The goal here is to get your dog to sit again with the physical reminder of lifting. I don’t want to bend down and push on their hind end, because it gets me too close and touching them, which is a reward.
I can, however, grab another treat, get my dog to focus, and ask them to sit again. Either lifting gently on the collar or asking verbally will work; use whichever one works best for your dog. Once your dog is sitting, give him or her a treat. Now we open the door.
EXPLOSION: THE THIRD.
Stop! Wait. Lift or ask your dog to sit. When they do, give them a treat. Take a step forward.
EXPLOSION: THE REVENGE.
Stop! Wait. Lift or ask your dog to sit. When they do, give them a treat.
Typically after you’ve stopped a few times, your dog has gotten a handle on their over-excitement and will stop barking. Then you can actually leave the house.
“Heyyyyy, waitaminute,” I hear you cry. “Isn’t this to get them to stop barking way back when we leashed them?”
Yes… and no. We’re trying to get them to contain and control themselves even when they’re excited. From that place comes quiet. Your dog may not actually stop barking for weeks. If they get to a point where they’re sitting but still barking, then you simply withhold the leash or treat and stand quietly until they stop. Then you reward by taking the next step in getting ready to leave, or giving them a treat. At first, we don’t ask them to stop barking; it’s too big a leap. We ask them to start controlling themselves by sitting when they’re exited.
“Okay,” I hear you say. “But my dog doesn’t flip out at the leash. He flips out at the arrival of my spouse coming home.”
So, we find another something to get them to focus on. It might be recall, or sit, or lay in bed. In any case, you’re going to ask them to focus first, give them a treat, and if they need it, you’re going to physically show them what you want. Just like we lifted or cued to get the dog to sit, we can catch them and put them in bed, then reward for it.
This method can take a bit of time (usually about a month to see real results), but it’s a gentle, force-free method. I like this method, in fact. Sometimes, though, you have twin babies and you need the barking to stop YESTERDAY. So, next week we’ll deal with that!